Album Review: Joy Division’s Closer

Joy Division’s final album Closer is perhaps the most haunting album ever made by a rock band. It was released at almost the same time that leader singer Ian Curtis committed suicide. On May 18, 1980 the rest of the members of Joy Division were making last minute preparations to embark upon their first tour of America. By the next morning their lives would be forever changed.

The sound of Joy Division was unique when they making it and somehow, almost thirty years later, it still sounds like almost nothing else ever recorded. Especially this album. Closer is notable at first for its eligiac cover, a black and white image of figures praying at a tombsite. The stark music accurately reflects the feeling of that image. It is difficult to listen to this album and realize that three of the four members of the band that created it are also responsible for the pumping, danceable rhythms of the band New Order. The signature sounds of two bands could almost be nothing more alike.

Closer starts with the jackhammer guitars and ferocious drumming of “Atrocity Exhibition.” Singer Ian Curtis presents a lyrical landscape of somewhere that sounds like hell, but yet also sounds all too familarly earth-bound. As Curtis paints in ever more horrifying images a world made up of evil and pain, the invitation to step inside and join the madness keeps being extended. Listening to this song is not an easy experience. Debate rages as to whether the lyrics of Curtis can provide any real insight into his suicidal state of mind, but one thing is for certain. If you are in a similar state of mind, it’s probably best not to listen to this or most other Joy Division songs.

If “Atrocity Exhibition” isn’t a real insight into Curtis’ psyche, what about these lyrics from a song called “Isolation”?

“Mother I tried please believe me,
I’m doing the best that I can.
I’m ashamed of the things I’ve been put through,
I’m ashamed of the person I am.”

“Isolation” is a more traditional rock song than the previous one, but still manages to contain an undefinable sadness to it even the music. Perhaps no song on the album – indeed, perhaps no song on any album – is sadder than “The Eternal” with its portrayal of a funereal procession.

Which isn’t to say that all of Closer is musically downbeat. “A Means to an End” has an urgency to it both musically and lyrically that makes it one of the few songs on the album that is palatable to those who generally find this kind of music depressing. Complaint rock, as this kind of rock is often sarcastically referred to by its detractors, does admittedly possess a certain self-indulgent quality that should be called into question. But while I’m willing to give ground to criticism of other complaint rockers such as The Cure or the Smiths, I rise to the defense of Joy Division. Listening to this album sounds very much like listening to a suicide note. It’s certainly not fair to compare the complaints being made by a man with Ian Curtis’ destiny to the downbeat and depressing music made by guys who reaping the benefits of selling that music.

I like the Cure. I like the Smiths. But I love Joy Division and though neither Closer nor their debut album Unknown Pleasures are albums I would choose to listen to every day, I think they stand head and shoulders above any music that Joy Division has inspired.

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